International conference to renew focus on Afghan refugees

Updated February 12, 2020

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The conference is being co-hosted by the Pakistan government and the United Nations refugee agency. — Reuters/File
The conference is being co-hosted by the Pakistan government and the United Nations refugee agency. — Reuters/File

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan intends to use the international conference on Afghan refugees, being held next week, for bringing back the lost donor focus on the world’s largest protracted refugee population.

The conference being co-hosted by the Pakistan government and the United Nations refugee agency will be attended by Secretary General Antonio Guterres and UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi.

Mr Guterres will deliver keynote address at the “International Conference on 40 Years of Hosting Afghan Refugees in Pakistan: A New Partnership for Solidarity” on Feb 17 (Monday). Mr Grandi will also participate in a panel discussion at the conference.

UN chief Guterres will be visiting Pakistan from Feb 16 to 19. This will be his first trip to the country as head of the world body. It will, moreover, be the first visit by a UN secretary general to Pakistan in over six years. Former secretary general Ban Ki Moon had visited Pakistan in August 2013. UN General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa, meanwhile, toured Pakistan in January 2019.

Mr Guterres, who assumed the charge of secretary general in January 2017, has, however, been to the region before. He visited India in October 2018.

“The UN secretary general’s participation in the international conference is a recognition of Pakistan’s exemplary compassion, generosity and resolve in hosting Afghan refugees for the past four decades and our efforts for peace and stability in Afghanistan,” the Foreign Office said in a statement.

“The visit will be an opportunity to acknowledge Pakistan’s contribution to United Nations’ efforts in promotion and maintenance of international peace and security, especially through our valiant soldiers serving as the UN peacekeepers,” it added.

Pakistan has been hosting refugees from Afghanistan since 1979 following the Soviet invasion. At one point there were nearly four million refugees. Currently, there are 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan, while there are over a million unregistered Afghans living here. Nearly 4.5 million refugees have been repatriated to Afghanistan since 2002 with the help of UNHCR.

Donor countries have over the years lost interest in the repatriation of refugees because of multiple global crises. Pakistan has been consistently calling on the developed countries to fulfil their commitment towards ‘honorable and dignified repatriation’ of Afghan refugees.

Representatives from a number of countries and donor agencies are expected to participate in the international conference. There have been speculations that UNHCR special envoy Angelina Jolie was also invited to the event, but she declined.

The UN secretary general, UNHCR chief and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi would also speak to the press, the UN Information Centres in Islamabad said in a separate statement.

Besides attending the refugees’ conference, the secretary general would meet Mr Qureshi, Prime Minister Imran Khan and President Arif Alvi.

The FO said the Pakistani leaders in their meetings with the secretary general would share the country’s perspective on the Jammu and Kashmir dispute. Mr Guterres will also speak at an event on sustainable development and climate change. He will travel to Lahore on Feb 18 for attending an event on polio vaccination campaign and visit Gurdwara Sahib in Kartarpur.

The secretary general will during his trip interact with the parliamentarians, media and youths.

The FO noted that Pakistan is an ardent supporter of the United Nations and has contributed significantly to the realisation of UN’s objectives of peace and security and sustainable development in the world.

Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2020